Pope Francis and the Religious Right

The Religious Right

One in four Americans claims to be an evangelical Christian. Evangelicals hold strongly conservative positions on many social and moral issues, and form one of the most powerful voting blocks in American politics. They comprise the traditional base of what is popularly referred to as “the Religious Right.”

Although the Religious Right has often dreamed of being a dominant force in American politics – think of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s and the 1988 presidential campaign of Pat Robertson – it has never had sufficient breadth to form a true majority.

Jerry Falwell-bEven with the Moral Majority rising to national prominence in the 1980s, Falwell’s appeal never moved far beyond his own conservative Baptist base. He remained suspicious – even antagonistic – toward most other Protestant groups and was fundamentally distrustful of Catholicism. By the late 1980s, the Moral Majority had folded.

Pat RobertsonPat Robertson’s presidential bid never made it out of the primaries and he ended up casting his support to the incumbent, President George H. W. Bush. Robertson then used the remainder of his campaign resources to found a new organization to succeed the Moral Majority, to be known as the Christian Coalition. He appointed Ralph Reed to direct the organization and Reed worked diligently to expand the group’s base.

In particular, Reed formed an effective alliance with conservative Catholics around issues having to do with preserving traditional “family values.” Their efforts focused largely on opposing access to abortion and exempting gays from civil rights protections.

As Ronald Story and Bruce Laurie note in their book, The Rise of Conservatism in America, 1945-2000

book-Rise of ConservatismThe tenuous, sometimes troubled alliance between Catholic conservatives and Protestant evangelicals matured at the end of the 1980s into a more reliable partnership on moral issues. The influx of immigrants from Third World countries, hostile to gay rights and abortion, nudged Catholicism rightward. So did the appointment by Pope John Paul of conservative bishops unfriendly to the social justice ethos of Vatican II ….

Lay activists worked to unite Catholics and Protestants around a program of making religious conservatism a public issue. They formed Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), which issued manifestos endorsed by conservative clerics. (p. 27)

The authors note that despite these advances, the Christian Right received little support from the Republican President George H. W. Bush and even less from his Democratic successor, Bill Clinton. However, with the candidacy of George W. Bush, “The Christian Right in 2000 finally had one of their own at the head of the Republican ticket.”

Older stalwarts Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson … mobilized evangelical Christians through their broadcast outlets and voter guides. Catholic prelates encouraged votes for Bush… . Lay Catholics distributed guides urging voters to assess candidates on abortion, gay marriage, and euthanasia …. Such a broad coalition, armed with a great war chest, made the GOP look like a sure and easy winner. (p. 30)

Yet even with such a broad coalition of voters pushing for Bush’s election, the race was amazingly close. The Democratic candidate, Al Gore, actually won the popular vote and the Electoral College vote was a toss-up until the state of Florida (governed by George W. Bush’s brother, Jeb) was declared for the Republicans more than month later after the Supreme Court stopped a contentious vote recount by a 5 to 4 decision.

The Religious Right had won – but by the narrowest of margins. The challenge would be to keep that coalition of conservative religious voters united in future campaigns if victory was to be maintained. But after 2000 the Christian Coalition fell on hard times, was the subject of several lawsuits, and by 2004 it was technically bankrupt. It continues today as a 501(c)(4) organization focused on opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.

The Democratic candidate Barack Obama swept into office in 2008 on a broad surge of popular appeal and the promise of a new vision for America. Despite major losses for Democrats in the 2010 mid-term elections and fierce campaigning against his policies by the Religious Right, President Obama was re-elected in 2012 and Republicans suffered a net loss of seats in both the Senate and the House.

The question must be raised as to whether the Religious Right can still maintain a dominant position in national electoral politics. The level of support was insufficient under the limited appeal of the Moral Majority in the 1980s, but was more successful when it included conservative Catholics within the Christian Coalition.

Today efforts continue to keep conservative evangelical Protestants and Catholics together as a united force campaigning on the key issue of “family values.” This united front is now being jeopardized by a new and unexpected factor – the election this year of a new Pope.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis-cIn September, Pope Francis made waves with the publication of his statement that the Catholic Church had become obsessed with the issues of abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and needed to display an attitude of mercy rather than judgment. He criticized the Church for putting dogma before love, and stated,

We need to find a new balance, otherwise … the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.

When asked specifically about the issue of homosexuality, he said,

Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.

Francis has called on the church to be more caring toward the ostracized, the suffering, and the needy. “I see the Church as a field hospital after battle,” he said. “You have to heal [the person’s] wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”

He has called on the Church to offer itself as a “home for all,” and has, as reported by the New York Times, “criticized the church for putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized.”

All of this could be bad news for America’s powerful Religious Right. If a significant number of Catholic voters follow the Pope’s example, they may move away from the kind of “culture war” issues that currently define much of conservative American politics to focus on other matters.

Pope Francis definitely wants them to give priority to other matters. Not only is he noticeably shifting the focus away from the divisive social issues emphasized by religious conservatives, he is redirecting the discussion toward critiquing areas normally considered sacrosanct by conservatives, namely capitalism and the free market economy.

This past November, Pope Francis issued a lengthy “apostolic exhortation” (Evangelii Gaudium, literally, The Joy of the Gospel) in which he laid out a mission statement for the Catholic Church. It contained bold language and sweeping calls for change on many issues, including the way the Church addresses economic policies. It provided a harsh critique of “trickle-down” economics and unrestricted free markets that disadvantage the poor. The pope lamented the growing trend of income inequality under capitalism and called on political leaders to adopt financial reforms that will lift up the lower classes.

trickle-down economics

Among Francis’ more memorable statements in this document:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power …. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?

Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. 

When Rush Limbaugh states that “This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope,” or Sarah Palin complains that his statements “sound kind of liberal,”  they display their ignorance of traditional Catholic teaching.

Pope Francis is no Marxist and he is not a liberal. He is a traditionalist, steeped in the teachings and approved practices of the Catholic Church. In his statements he is pointedly reaffirming the positions laid out in the official papal encyclicals of his predecessors including:

  • Rerum Novarum: On the Condition of Workers (1891) – addresses capital, labor, and the condition of the working class
  • Quadragesimo Anno: On the Reconstruction of the Social Order (1931) – on the dignity of labor, the rights of workers to organize, and the immorality of keeping economic control in the hands of a few
  • Laborem Exercens: On Human Work (1981) – states that work should not be dehumanizing but a means for participating in God’s ongoing creation
  • Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: On the Twentieth Anniversary of Populorum Progressio (1987) – adopts a critical attitude toward both capitalism and communism
  • Caritas in Veritatae: Charity in Truth (2009) – calls for linking charity and truth in the pursuit of justice, the common good, and authentic human development.
  •  Mater et Magistra: Mother and Teacher (1961) – places responsibility for social justice not just in the hands of the individual but also in the hands of the State
  • Populorum Progressio: On the Development of People (1967) – advocates a pluralistic, decentralized approach to addressing economic problems

Pope Francis has not changed the Catholic Church’s doctrine or policies on any of these matters. He has, however, definitely changed its tone. And his message seems to be going over well. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll has shown that not only is Francis popular among progressive Catholics, even 91% of politically conservative American Catholics view their new pope favorably. There is remarkable interest in his weekly pastoral addresses, and he has some 3.3 followers on Twitter. Time magazine recently named him “Person of the Year.”

Pope Francis’ appeal is considerable. He is widely seen as a force for renewal and revitalization within the Church. The question is, as Catholics follow the lead of their Chief Bishop and turn their attention to addressing other pressing social issues such as high unemployment, rising poverty, social inequity, and care for the disadvantaged and marginalized in society, will it affect their political ties with Protestant Evangelicals and the Religious Right as a whole?

Will Evangelicals come to be seen as badly out of step with their Catholic compatriots? Will the Religious Right in America devolve back to its former state of representing only a narrow sliver of the religious spectrum? Will it be capable of sustaining itself, much less generating broader appeal, or will it, like the earlier Moral Majority, fall by the wayside?

If they are willing, evangelical Christians and political conservatives as a whole might learn a lesson from Pope Francis. As a recent article appearing in The Atlantic noted,

The Republican Party, according to polls, is viewed by many in the United States as insular, intolerant and lacking compassion for the poor while consorting with the rich. The Catholic Church has the same “brand problem”—and since his election in March, Pope Francis has ruthlessly tackled it.

The parallels are striking. But it remains to be seen whether American social and religious conservatives will prove able to change their message and rebrand themselves as nimbly as Pope Francis has done. If not, their influence may well continue to decline.

photo credit: Reuters


Nelson Mandela’s Canadian Connection

NELSON-MANDELA-1991426This week as the world remembers the legacy of Nelson Mandela, Canadians are recalling his special relationship with this nation. As Evan Solomon, host of CBC Radio’s program The House, noted on Saturday,

If Nelson Mandela belongs first to South Africa and then to the world, he also belongs uniquely to Canada, where he was made an honorary citizen. It’s a special bond forged in the midst of the international struggle against apartheid by the Prime Minister [of Canada] who, against great pressure, brought sanctions against South Africa.

Back in 1985 the call for sanctions against the apartheid government on South Africa was an extremely contentious issue. Both President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were firmly against it. But that year Canada elected a new Conservative leader named Brian Mulroney who took a different view.

Mulroney, Brian (DHC 5)As Brian Mulroney recalled on Saturday when being interviewed by Solomon,

I felt when we came in that the support that Canada had been giving to Mandela and the ANC and the fight against apartheid was both tepid and inconsistent with our values. If Canada stands for anything internationally as a modern medium-sized power, we should stand for the protection of human liberties and civil rights, and here we were with the greatest human liberties struggle on the face of the planet going on, and we were not raising the flag with the vigor that we ought to have been. So I made this a priority of the government and indicated to the Cabinet that we would fight this at the United Nations, at the G7, at the Commonwealth, and at the summit of the Francophonie [an international organization of French-speaking nations].

This policy was carried out by Canada’s foreign minister, Joe Clark, who championed Canada’s opposition to the apartheid regime on the international stage. At the time, Canada was the only G7 nation to take such a resolute stance against apartheid.

Mulroney recalls that

with the United States and the United Kingdom out, Canada was the leading industrialized Commonwealth player and G7 player who was in full support of Mandela. They needed a white industrialized country in support of the ANC’s objectives. And we were it.

From his prison cell on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela learned on a BBC broadcast that “a young Canadian Prime Minister had taken control in Canada” and had made Mandela’s cause Canada’s top international priority. Mandela intently followed developments as the movement gained ground, and was immensely grateful for Canada’s leadership in pushing to end apartheid.

Soon after the world celebrated Nelson Mandela’s release from jail in May 1990, Mulroney recalls that Mandela phoned him and said,

Because of the tremendous support that Canadians have given me and given my movement, I would like to make my first trip to a democratically elected parliament to speak before the Parliament in Ottawa.

BRIAN MULRONEY, NELSON MANDELAMandela made that trip to Ottawa in May 1990 to tumultuous acclaim, and delivered what Prime Minister Mulroney called the most memorable speech to Canada’s Parliament since that of Winston Churchill in 1939. On the floor of Parliament he thanked Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who, he said,

has continued along the path charted by Prime Minister Diefenbaker who acted against apartheid because he knew that no person of conscience could stand aside as a crime against humanity was being committed.

And addressing all Canadians, he stated,

We are deeply moved that today you honour … us, who were outcasts only yesterday, to experience if only fleeting, what it means to stand and speak at a place whose existence is based on the recognition of the right of all the people to determine their destiny, and whose purpose is to ensure that that right is guaranteed in perpetuity. We are made better human beings by the fact that you have reached out from across the seas to say that we too, the rebels, the fugitives, the prisoners deserve to be heard.

In May 1994 millions of viewers around the world watched as Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa. He served in that capacity until 1999. During that time, Mandela distinguished himself in working to heal that nation’s wounds in the wake of the oppressive apartheid policies that until then had divided South Africa’s European and indigenous populations.

Alberta’s current Premier, Allison Redford (then a young lawyer) worked closely with Mandela during those years in trying to rebuild the legal system in South Africa. In 1996 Mandela oversaw the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the many crimes committed under apartheid, and it did much to heal that nation’s wounds.

Canada’s close relationship with Nelson Mandela continued, and on November 19, 2001, he became the first living person to be made an honorary citizen of Canada.

Belatedly, Canada came to recognize that South Africa’s apartheid laws had been constructed to a large extent on Canada’s own Indian Act of 1951 (updated from an earlier act of 1876), which placed the affairs of all “status” Indians directly under government controls. Canadian aboriginals have suffered greatly under the provisions of that act. Of particular concern is the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse experienced by generations of aboriginal children who were taken from their homes and placed in residential schools.

TRUTH-AND-RECONCILIATION-COMMISSIONIn 2007 Canada established its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission built upon Mandela’s model used in South Africa to hear testimony from survivors of abuse in the residential schools, and to heal the wounds suffered by Canadian aboriginals over a 120-year period. The commission expects to complete its work by 2014.

Mandela’s relationship with Canada has now come full circle. Just as Canada provided key support in Mandela’s struggle to establish justice for the native people of South Africa, now he has provided Canadians with a model for establishing a greater measure of justice for Canada’s aboriginal population.

Nelson Mandela’s influence and legacy reaches far beyond his homeland of South Africa. It is making an important difference in Canada as well. And for this we are truly thankful.

Credits: Getty; Fred Chartrand/CP; Wm. DeKay/CP; CP